hyperlocalians (or how to make journalism pay)

I wrote the following lines back in January of this year:

In truth, what we became was the second Industrial Revolution.  Instead of mining coal, iron ore, slate and diamonds, the Facebooks and Googles and Twitters et al mined what they managed to convert into our freely available and plentiful thoughts, using relatively simple and cleverly repeated programming strategies along the insatiable way.

The grand achievement of the Industrial Revolution of the 21st century has been to turn human beings – in an ever-growing and significant minority – into natural resources to be exploited and maximised for the benefit of those who still conserve some dignified relationship with work.

As the minority slowly becomes a majority, we shall see whether this will remain a sustainable state of affairs.  Whilst people like myself have laboured under the foolish and confused state of mind that no one paid us for what we did because what we did wasn’t worth paying for, people, institutions, finally very large concentrations of wealth, which have known all along far better than we ever did, have taken all those ideas, have created firehoses and algorithmic streams whose intelligence – whilst no longer the work of any individual author, and thus becoming free of all copyright, payment and intellectual recognition – nevertheless still requires the billions of authors to continue contributing without financial compensation.

Also:

It’s amazing how the our virtual 21st century ecosystem has become, essentially, a capitalism which exploits a millionfold more than Victorian times ever did.  And yet few people who are exploited seem to see it as exploitation.  They say: “Social networks?  Hey!  That’s fun.”  And if you say to them: “You know, whilst you’re not making ends meet, someone in Silicon Valley’s turning a helluva business on what you do when you look at your smartphone!”

To conclude:

Isn’t this all a case of colonialism squared?  Only, instead of geographic and racial, it’s become virtual and mental.

But the ethnocentricity, the self-centred commerce, the egotistical carelessness … even the cruelty that comes out of thoughtless acts which start out in one type of place – and end up condemning real lives to heartless despair in quite another …

These are the real implications of this very 21st century destruction of all of the natural resources alluded to.

Shortly after writing these words, I created a project called chester.website, where (I think) I was stumbling to create a sustainable relationship between intellect and reward.

After seven months of slog, I realised I’d not got the skills to generate the engagement and sense of belonging which I needed others to feel for the project in question to take off properly and function.

But I haven’t given up on the idea of avoiding the mistakes of the blogosphere’s past decade; of social networks; and of Web 2.0’s ultimately sneaky pulling of the wool over our collaborative eyes.

It seems to me that within the hyperlocal environments that have sprung up around the country over the past few years we are resolving many of the issues that currently face the sector of local news.

Maybe, longer-term, national and global news too.

One issue which is creating considerable tension however – I’ve seen it in others on Facebook and elsewhere, in particular in the comments that committed individuals working in hyperlocal leave every so often for us to read – is that which occupied me in my January piece quoted from above: the dignified, sustainable and just relationship between a good day’s work and a good day’s pay.

That people who work – I resist the term “professionals”, as it tends to imply a certain kind of worker and I certainly don’t mean to restrict the categories here at all – should in a world of plenty be receiving plenty less than they used to, or perhaps nothing at all, makes me wonder if there can’t be a better way to reconceptualise everything.

Even within Web 2.0 and social networks the idea of reward for work is not ignored: when you post a photo people like, you get temporary notoriety (oh, all right! Call it fame …) as the “likes” and positive comments flood in.  So the nexus of doing and getting something in exchange holds up – forms, in fact, the whole foundation of social media as all of us know it.

What’s broken, though, at least to my mind, is the convertibility of the reward generally assigned us.  What’s broken is the ability to do something useful for ourselves with those “likes” and comments, which isn’t simply – little more than – a square root of narcissism.  Was it Newton who argued energy not only couldn’t be destroyed but could also be moved from one form to another?  Well, Zuckerberg has destroyed that sequence of laws and beliefs.  In early 21st century Web 2.0 as it has become, “likes” and verbal love remain congealed in a personally useless aspic.  The energy of the Facebooks of the world is deliberately stuck in virtual craws.

This is clearly not healthy.  So I wonder: how best to deal with the situation?

As I continue to argue, there’s always a better way.  Whatever circumstance we find ourselves in, there’s always, without exception, going to be a wiser direction towards the future.  The question is really whether we are able to lift our heads above the walls they have built around us, and see the green grass beyond which is waiting to be rolled in.

The key here, in this particular case, is convertibility.  Money has lost its utility in Web 2.0, because what we do – the reward we get –  has had money as its currency gouged out of it.  The only people who get money from Web 2.0 are the tech orgs which run it for their benefit.

The alternative, then, has to be time (it is, in any case, all that they’ve left us).  At the moment, as I pointed out above, our time is being mined just as coal – once – was mined and delivered to colonialists who reserved the right to rip resource out of virgin land.

But what if we turn our Web 2.0 time into the convertible substitute that money historically has operated as – the convertible substitute we need in order that intellect may continue to earn us a living wage?

Time banks you believe I mean?  Not exactly.  Or, at least, not as we know them.

Time banks are general repositories: they’ve always seemed rather cold to me; anyone and everyone can participate, in theory – they then, as a result, lose particular focus.

No.  I’d be suggesting something rather more tied into one particular sector.  Hyperlocal media and communication hubs, to be precise.

Less, minutes and seconds for all and sundry.  More, “hyperlocalians” to pay our journalists.

The question being: how can we make work pay for journalists, contributors and authors in the future?  How can we turn thoughts and ideas no one currently values or filters into the stuff that dignified lives of remunerated souls are made of?

This is my challenge for this autumn and into 2016.  To make journalism pay.

engagement, community and the individual

A couple of days ago I posted on the conflict between writing what people are identified, through the crunching of online stats, as wanting in their newspapers, and writing what we – as grandly hierarchical authorial voices – believe people need to read.  I concluded in the following way:

Perhaps, in a sense, it is wrong of me to bemoan latterday newspapers’ statistical approach to writing stories.  Structures and restrictions have always faced our artists: the shock of the new, the art of the old, the genius of the wise, the resilience of the one-day-to-be-famous creators of future generations … all these issues and more may help us to understand better that whilst the moneymen and women do substantially affect our ability to do good, equally the Utopia we would desire is inevitably beyond our reach.

It may or may not be democracy to only write what people want.

But similarly, mightn’t it be a kind of fascism to only write what we think they need?

Last night, meanwhile, I finally let go – in the face of a resounding lack of interest – of a hyperlocal journalism project which has had grand virtue but zero engagement in the community where I live.

In response to this piece, a very nice man I met a few weeks ago in person very kindly tweeted this:

This post you are reading now is my short and concise reply.

Engagement is the buzz-concept of the second decade of this 21st century.  Without take-up, without a wider acceptance, utility for any virtual and/or community project does not exist.  And there is little point – in the case of the hyperlocal experiences under discussion today, for example – in my continuing another seven months, bravely plugging away as an individual who is peculiarly, maybe fruitlessly, in the outfield of irrelevant process – with what’s evidently been, at a personal level anyway, a limited capacity to engage that wider community.

In any case, from the beginning, the project was about sustainability: about re-engineering existing business models in tandem with the new hyperlocal, for the benefit of all and sundry.  And it’s here, perhaps, where my sticking-point has lain all along.  I’ve been a blogger since 2003 (maybe earlier; can’t remember for sure): part of that army of virtual ants which has clambered altruistically, collaboratively, ultimately (I’m afraid to say) grossly too, over its tiring companions and colleagues, as the years have passed by in generally unpaid and uncompensated labour.

If I am clear about anything, it’s that I don’t want such volunteer weariness to repeat itself for hyperlocal – for yet another possibly foolish and certainly unknowing generation of hopefuls.

We don’t want to make of significant journalism a permanent internship of promises, never fulfilled.

If I give up on being a one-man band, this is mainly, primarily, why.

For starters, out of a kind of déjà vu.  Out of seeing how excited individuals are exploited systemically through their own laudable belief in their communities and the future.

Also, then, because I do seriously wonder the following: in democracy, what right does any individual (like myself, I mean) have to hierarchically define what an unwilling community rejects – whether outright and explicitly or with an (un)fairly cloaked sense of ownership?

And so it is, by way of final observation, I express – in the strongest terms –  my desire to create models and dynamics of collaboration which attribute and remunerate justly.

As in our emotional lives, so in our business relationships.

Isn’t that right?  Isn’t that how – always – it should be?

the editor’s algorithm

How about this?

How about we took the twenty years of Peter Preston’s editorship of the Guardian newspaper – analysing and cross-referencing every single story that was published, along with every single journalistic angle that was observed and chosen?

Then, just for fun, we could do the same with Alan Rusbridger’s twenty years just finished, at the helm of the same paper.

Yes.  I know.  Two questions arise.  The first being: is it possible?  The second being: why do it?

Firstly, the first.  We’d have to set up some kind of criteria, that is true.  Maybe something along the following lines:

  • each story could be defined in terms of:
    • length
    • wordcount
    • register (ie complexity of sentence structure etc)
    • subject matter
    • visibility (ie how prominent the paper chose to foreground it)
    • how long-running it became (ie a single-article story vs a narrative arc over time)
  • defining the angles would be more difficult, and perhaps I am not the best-placed person to decide this (lack of technical knowhow for starters), but some kind of sentiment analysis could probably come in useful here

The idea, then, and I only suggest the Guardian because it’s the newspaper I know best (it could, of course, equally apply to any publication with sufficient history), would be to create a mathematical representation – an algorithm if you must – of the editorship’s style and heteroglossia that each individual created, developed and left behind them, over their period of time as editor of the paper.

The sum of all their decisions – as well as the decisions of all their teams of course.

In much the same way as Rusbridger’s leaving describes:

Yet, nevertheless, and even so, allowing a singular editorial voice to be extracted, identified, typed, scored and made patent.

That’s my thesis, and one it’d be nice to be able to test too.

Don’t you think?

🙂

So there we have it: the editor’s algorithm.  A process whereby the accumulated intelligence and intuition of the Prestons and Rusbridgers of the world could almost be bottled, before being … what?

Well.  An application does occur to me: how about we had an online newspaper – just like the Guardian, in fact, is these days – whose content you could read and absorb, according to the filter of absolutely any historical editor the paper ever had?  Back to the days of CP Scott even.

Or, even, a Guardian edition of today, recomposed at the click of a button exactly as if it had been edited by a Kelvin Mackenzie or a Piers Morgan … or maybe a Ben Bradlee or a Tony Gallagher …

Now onto our why.  “What on earth would this be useful for?” I’m hearing you say (if, that is, you’ve read thus far!).  It’s a good question, and one I’m not exactly ready to answer.  But in the world of journalism and ideas, having an idea like this is surely worth writing an article about.  At the very least.  To be able to identify, at such a high intellectual level, the maths behind so many complex decision-making processes – processes that surely kick into play when a newspaper’s editor-in-chief creates, recreates, develops and sustains over such a long time a media voice of such complicated parts – would be fascinatingly uncovered by a project like this.

To be able to bottle top-class editorial decision-making, that ability to edit reality which often reveals so quickly so much useful truth about our planet and the societies that make it up, would be a grand achievement indeed – not only in order to understand highly competent journalism and its processes better; also, to apply the acquired knowledge to many other areas where high-powered data analysis, interpretation and (what we might term) an “applied intuition” is necessary.

Anyone up for it?  Come on!  Don’t be shy … as it says on my gravatar, I don’t bite at all!